Outputs Not Inputs

What comes out of commissioning programs is far more important than what goes in.

In a recent post, Paul Dalen argues that the U.S. Army is responsible for its homogeneity in the officer Corps. I do think his recommendation that the Army put more effort into expanding ROTC programs in the Northeast is a good one, if only to expand the potential pool of available talent. I disagree with several implications, however.

Dalen’s primary concern is in addressing the oft-maligned civil-military divide. As an indicator of this divide, he points to the results of a recent survey conducted on officers in professional military education, and concludes that, “Simply put, the more conservative an officer views himself or herself, the less confidence that officer has in those outside the Army.” I believe this is a bit too bold.

First, Dalen notes that the survey he uses was of “mid-career” officers in professional military education. This excludes not only senior and junior officers, but those in operational assignments. While those in these courses would likely replicate the opinions of their peers, this is not necessarily so for those groups of senior and much more numerous junior officers, thus creating a problem with generalizing the results of the survey to all officers. Without additional information as to the sample size, the dates over which this information was collected, etc. it is hard to determine other aspects of the survey’s validity.

Given that the survey was presumably conducted within the past six years, under a liberal administration, perhaps those who personally identify as conservative could be expected to show more of a distrust in civilian leadership. Had the survey been done in 2005, it may have shown lack of faith in leadership as significantly higher in self-identified liberal officers. There have been times in the past where this was also the case. It is also worth noting that among the general population during the same period, civilians who self-identify as conservative also reported less confidence in the administration. It is likely that such attitudes simply represent personal political affiliation more than any dangerous trend in civil-military relations.

The assumption that this worldview alone, creates distrust in civilian leadership is also problematic. As the survey noted, there was distrust in bothgroups. And this could also have more to do with the nature of the questions, than actual personal political preferences. What soldier truly believes that a civilian understands his role, especially after 10 years of war that largely left the civilian mostly unaffected? What officer doesn’t understand that the very purpose of armed forces are to kill and to die for political goals? They therefore may not truly believe that, “our political leaders have my best interests as an Army officer in mind,” but believe that perhaps these political leaders have other priorities. What soldier today wouldn’t doubt that same statement when hearing discussions of personnel compensation cuts alongside cost overruns for expensive technology programs?

In short, though there may be truth to Dalen’s conclusion when applied to a limited group under certain conditions, the survey data does not justify an assertion as broad as stated in his original post.

Whether through attracting conservative personnel to its ranks, or through its education of soldiers and officers, or most likely a combination thereof, the professional army has historically had a conservative bent. It is easy to understand why. To perform its mission it must maintain a worldview that is shared by many conservative political philosophies, and often differs from more liberal philosophies. As Samuel Huntington pointed out“Indeed it was found appropriate to designate the military ethic as one of conservative realism…conservatism alone…is not driven by an inevitable conflict with the military values which stem from the demands of the military function.” Trust has varied up and down throughout this conservative lean.

I also believe Dalen overemphasizes the dangers of personal political beliefs which, for the professional officer, are largely irrelevant to relations with civilian leadership. The soldier does not have the same freedoms as the civilian to express his private beliefs, and even has a mandate to keep them out of his professional judgement. If this is in doubt, the MacArthur or McChrystal incidents provide telling examples. If civilian leadership knows an officer’s personal political beliefs, then the officer is in error. It should also be understood that, whatever its organizational worldview, and regardless of the personal political beliefs of its members, the military as an institution is subordinate to civilian leadership. It will execute whatever task it is given, regardless of confidence in outside leadership, and has consistently done so.

Personal political differences of its members might actually be an indicator that the military is less disconnected from the American public, which is often divided or uniformly dissatisfied with policymakers.

Aside from the dangers of supposed officer partisanship, there are some demographic issues as well.

Dalen writes that, “Faced with the challenge of persuading young Americans to join the Army, it is not entirely surprising that the Army focused its enlisted recruiting on areas of the country with more limited economic opportunities. This strategy has been successful at meeting Army enlistment needs…[but]…A successful enlisted recruiting strategy does not necessarily equate to a successful officer accession strategy. ”

Yet, it has been demonstrated that the, “U.S. military service disproportionately attracts enlisted personnel and officers who do not come from disadvantaged backgrounds…” and further that, “Members of the all-volunteer military are significantly more likely to come from high-income neighborhoods than from low-income neighborhoods.”

Throughout our history, officers have virtually always been more likely to come from higher income families and be better educated than the average American citizen.

If the Army was targeting those with low-economic opportunities, then it appears to have failed. It is also doubtful that the Army pursued such a policy for officer accessions. Rather than the deliberate targeting of certain groups, the Army more likely pursued a more reactive policy, focusing efforts where it was geographically successful and where there was desire for those efforts. Dalen does reference numerous factors, though certainly not all, which drove the Army’s decision in the shifting of ROTC resources:

“…resentment by tenured professors of non-degreed officers holding the title of “Professor”, perceived lack of academic rigor in Military Science courses, political pressure from student groups (primarily focused on Vietnam and during the first round of closures), and pressure from faculty and student groups regarding the Defense Department’s exclusion of homosexuals from the Armed Forces…”

These are factors that could be expected to drive the process away from the Northeast, but there are also many that could be expected to drive resources toward the South.

Regardless of reasons, this shift of resources has not entirely resulted in the accession ratios that would be predicted, which implies that accessions are affected by factors more significant than where there are ROTC battalions. For instance, if we are truly concerned with geographic diversity, we may want to focus more on the West, which according to data from 2004-2007 trails the Northeast in terms of officer recruiting. In 2007 both the West and the Midwest trailed the Northeast not only in ROTC accessions but at the United States Military Academy as well.

It is easy to over-emphasize demographic factors, but doing so may take the focus away from where it should really be.

Much has been said about the absurdity of expecting any group of voluntary membership to represent the demographics of a population on the whole. Thomas Sowell highlighted this back in 1981, noting:

“As I look at numbers from various places around the world, I don’t find anything faintly resembling an even representation of people in any institution anywhere in the world, broken down by any way. There’s been a recent study of military forces around the world, in which they can find no country in which the military force represents even approximately the ethnic composition of the society. Sometimes the poorer groups are overrepresented, sometimes underrepresented. There are all kinds of factors there. What’s amazing to me is this notion that people would be evenly represented, except for these institutional policies. That notion has had such momentum behind it without a speck of evidence being asked or presented.”

To expect a volunteer military’s demographics to match the nation’s demographics is not only unrealistic, but unnecessary. Officers don't need to look like the nation as a whole as long as they serve the nation as a whole. Such an idea places superficial characteristics of groups above the individual capability of a potential officer. How well an officer does his job matters much more than his home state, class, race, religion, etc. and whether these characteristics match up with the national makeup overall. How effective an officer is will always be eminently more important to the public trust than whether the officer corps has an appeal to the citizenry. Better all soldiers in the Army be from one city and be capable than have geographic diversity for the sake of it, or to garner increased relations with fellow citizens, at the expense of effectiveness. While Dalen’s post certainly does not prescribe such a policy, the logic is the same that is followed in many other arguments for dangerous policies, such as conscription.

A well-written response to Dalen’s post, by Robert Callahan, an ROTC cadet of all people, highlighted the very real truth that making the Army more liberal would not end the divide. Having representativeness does not ensure there will be no divide and not having representativeness does not mean that there will be a divide.

But armed by the dual fallacies that that the Ivy League represents an intellectual elite and that such persons necessarily make good officers,Callahan falls prey to the same myth as Dalen — that the divide is our greatest worry in realm of civil-military relations.

Callahan’s prescription to fix this divide points to Sarkesian’s dismissal of the apolitical military:

“…Sarkesian proposed an equilibrium model; a model of civil-military relations in which, ‘the relationship between the military and the civilian is established by the proper balancing of their political powers and purposes’…Sarkesian identified a number of necessary conditions for the ideal form of his model, but there are two of the utmost importance. First, “that the military profession is composed of an educated elite,” and second, that the civil and the military, ‘share the same values.’”

This idea is worrying. There are many problems with the first part of this statement, not the least of which are the implications of a military less subordinate and in competition with civilian leadership. Such a philosophy not only risks undermining fundamental protections from military usurpation of civilian authorities, but also risks the kind of reverse-Clausewitzian (or ‘Ludendorffian’?) position in which Germany found herself during World War I, where politics served military aims rather than the other way around.

Additionally, the loss of effectiveness in overly political military forces can be vividly witnessed in the Soviet or Chinese examples (though Sarkesian’s model doesn’t stipulate this, it becomes possible and more likely under it).

Even more dangerous to military capability is the second part of the statement — the idea that the military and civilian society should share the same values. T.R. Fehrenbach poetically dismissed such a notion,

“The values composing civilization and the values required to protect it are normally at war…There was and is no danger of military domination of the nation. The Constitution gave Congress the power of life or death over the military, and they have always accepted the fact. The danger has been the other way around — the liberal society, in its heart, wants not only domination of the military, but acquiescence of the military toward the liberal view of life. Domination and control society should have. But acquiescence society may not have, if it wants an army worth a damn…By the very nature of its mission, the military must maintain a hard and illiberal view of life and the world. Society’s purpose is to live; the military’s is to stand ready, if need be, to die…”

The civil-military divide has been one of the few defenses against society’s imposition of harmful liberal values on the military. The citizen-army raised to fight crusades may be able to operate in this politicized manner, but a professional military cannot. To paraphrase Fehrenbach, just as we must not militarize society in the manner of Sparta, we cannot liberalize the military, as Athens discovered.

The truth is that since the calling of the militia ceased to be our main method of going to war, up through the second World War, there has always been a separation between the professional military and society. Most of society never serves — only in the Civil War and World War II did the portion of population that served ever rise over 3%, and only in Korea and World War I did it rise over 2%. In terms of demographics, during the war in which Teddy Roosevelt led his Rough Riders, the Army was far less diverse than ours today.

The decline of the World War II population has brought the U.S. back to a much more common ratio of civilian to veteran. The disconnectedness of the population from the past ten years of war is far more normal than our experience in that outlier, the war of all wars. There is nothing ahistorical about a divide. And more importantly, efforts to close the gap could be far more detrimental than the gap itself.

Samuel Huntington pointed out that it was this ‘aloof’ and ‘alien’ relation to society that allowed the military to develop into a professional force: 

“The very isolation and rejection which reduced the size of the services and hampered technological advance made these same years the most fertile, creative and formative in the history of the American armed forces. Sacrificing power and influence, withdrawing into its own hard shell, the officer corps was able and permitted to develop a distinctive military character.”

He further went on to note that after World War II, “The military leaders blended with the liberal environment; they lost their alien and aloof character and emerged as the supreme embodiment of the national purpose.” John Tierney elaborated on this idea, explaining that, “By accepting the reins of political power, the military-by definition-blended with the national environment and was forced, willingly or not, to absorb many of the political traits of American culture.” This then, was the source of the ongoing civil-military tensions, not the divide itself, but the erosion of the divide.

Fehrenbach echoes this as well, writing:

“In 1861, and 1917, the Army acted upon the civilian, changing him. But in 1945 something new happened. Suddenly, without precedent, perhaps because of changes in the emerging managerial society, professional soldiers of high rank had become genuinely popular with the public…Suddenly, at the end of World War II, society embraced the generals. And here it ruined them. They had lived their lives in semibitter alienation from their own culture…but now they were sought after, offered jobs in business, government, on college campuses. Humanly, the generals liked the acclaim. Humanly, they wanted it to continue. And when, as usual after all our wars, there came a great civilian clamor to change all the things in the army the civilians hadn’t liked, humanly, the generals could not find it in their hearts to tell the public to go to hell…In 1945, somehow confusing the plumbers with the men who pulled the chain, the public demanded that the Army be changed to conform with decent, liberal society…It was not until the summer of 1950, when the legions went forth, that the generals realized what they had agreed to, and what they had wrought.”

Because of their reservations, the Founders were able to created a system in which we were able to maintain a standing army, without the dangers they so greatly feared. Samuel Adams was right to be wary of a standing army, but that wariness allowed us to avoid his predictions. The divide has not and will not cause a military coup even if it does allow military force to be more easily utilized. And while Roosevelt may have lauded the geographic diversity of the service, that diversity is only useful or relevant in what it does for the force’s effectiveness.

It may be true that the All-Volunteer Force leads politicians and/or the American people to be less frugal about the employment of military force. But regardless of that fact, sooner or later the nation will be required to fight. And when it does go to war, it would be better served by having a capable force built around efficacy, rather than by adopting policies that might weaken the force, in the vain hopes that those policies will result in the force being used less frequently. It does us no good to avoid more conflicts if we cannot win the ones that cannot be avoided.

Rather than focus on increasing ROTC presence, or on recruiting more of the nation’s so-called “elites” in order to address the divide, perhaps the focus should be on what really matters in terms of our effectiveness — what occurs inside all of our commissioning institutions. Right now, despite any rhetoric to the contrary, the source from which one commissions has no bearing on how well he or she is prepared to perform as an officer, and virtually all significant and relevant education and training is done post-commissioning, much of it on the job. This is the real problem with officer accessions and commissioning.

This, in turn has resulted in a mistaken focus on what (who) goes into these programs and the consequent fantasy that a lack of access to quality inputs is hurting our overall product. The reality is that there is far more potential to improve quality by addressing the process. Rather than looking at what goes into commissioning sources, we need to look at how these programs shape what comes out of them and ensure that their product is prepared for and suited to winning our future wars.

Because ultimately the nation’s trust does not (and should not) revolve around civilian relate-ability to the military, but around the military’s performance and its perceived effectiveness.

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